Behind the Headlines: Gender-neutral Language Finds Place in Liturgy of Mainstream Movements

Yah. Rachamema (Merciful One). Ruach HaOlam (Spirit of the World). Mekor Chaim (Source of Life). Eyn HaChaim (Wellspring of Life).

These words are names for God, and all of them are gender-neutral or feminine.

They are but a few of the new terms currently being incorporated into the liturgy as a growing number of Jews look away from the traditional male metaphors for God to search for new ways to describe the divine.

Many of these seekers, particularly women, are wondering what it means to refer to God in masculine terms.

Words, they say, are more than letters on a page.

Rabbi Julie Greenberg, a Reconstructionist, once stood at the Western Wall in Jerusalem and asked young Orthodox boys and girls if God is a man or a woman.

"They all said a man, of course," recalls Greenberg, who is director of the Jewish Renewal Life Center, a progressive yeshiva in Philadelphia.

According to Rabbi David Teutsch, editor of the Reconstructionist movement’s prayerbooks, "reinforcing the metaphor of God as male is much more powerful than people realize."

For those who agree that this is an incomplete image of God, describing the divine using female metaphors creates spiritual access to a loving creator from whom they’ve felt distanced.

Rachamema, one of the newly developed terms, for example, comes from the Hebrew word "rechem," which means "womb," which is also the linguistic root of "rachmanut," or "mercy."

CHANGING PRAYERS CAN BE PROBLEMATIC

But for more traditional Jews, changing the language of prayer means an irreparable break with the past that ventures dangerously close to idolatry.

Describing God in female terms is "nonsensical," said Rabbi Binyamin Walfish, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox organization.

"Because it’s an anthropomorphic expression, it borders on idolatry. God is a transcendant being," he said.

"We simply do not tamper with the text of tefillot," he added, using the Hebrew word for prayers.

Rabbi Jules Harlow, director of publications for the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, acknowledged that "since the Middle Ages there has been development" in the prayer form, but said that some of the newest changes "are dangerous to maintaining the fabric of tradition in Jewish liturgy."

Others disagree, especially those involved in the Jewish renewal movement of prayer groups and havurot, where much of the alternative language has originated.

From their point of view, it is very traditionally Jewish to develop prayer forms to reflect the changing needs of the community.

"The crisis of modernity for Judaism is an ossification of that process, that liturgy stopped evolving," said Marcia Falk, author of a forthcoming book called "A Book of Blessings: A Feminist-Jewish Reconstruction of Prayer."

"There’s a sense that the only way to have tradition is to nostalgically hold on to some idea from the past. That’s the quickest way to see it die," said Falk.

The first progressive prayer groups began developing new feminine and gender-neutral names for God in their liturgy about 15 years ago.

Slowly, the practice is making its way into the mainstream, through the Reconstructionist and Reform movements and even, in a limited way, finding a place in the Conservative movement.

As in every other matter of religious import, there is great debate over how far to take these egalitarian principles.

So far, altering the prayers seems to be happening more on an oral, ad-hoc basis, rather than in print. For example, congregants say "God," rather than "Lord" or "Master" when they come upon it in a synagogue reading.

FIRST CHANGE IS TO ADD IMAHOT

The first change usually made in the Hebrew liturgy is to add the mothers, the imahot– Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel — to recitations of the fathers, the avot — Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Aside from adding the imahot, the Reconstructionist and Reform movements have not changed the Hebrew wording in their prayerbooks.

"We’re committed to complete gender neutrality in our English. Hebrew isn’t a gender-neutral language, so there’s not much we can do, except add the imahot," said Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, executive director of the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot.

The next step after inclusion of the mothers is to change the English translations of Adonai, the traditional metaphor for the unknown and unknowable name of God.

"Using Lord, or King, masculine terms, is eschewed," said Rabbi H. Leonard Poller, chairman of the Committee on Liturgy of Reform’s Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Avoiding the most patriarchal of terms "enables the worshiper to express his or her relationship to the divine without having to feel excluded," he said.

At the same time, "There are masculine and feminine aspects to the godhead, and we need not negate the idea of gender altogether as long as we are balanced," said Rabbi Elliot Stevens, director of publications for the CCAR.

But, wonders the Conservative movement’s Harlow, "Does it make sense to be gender-neutral in English only?"

P’NAI OR HAS MADE MOST DRAMATIC CHANGES

The liturgy has been amended most dramatically by the P’nai Or Religious Fellowship, an outreach and educational organization which serves Jewish renewal groups.

The Fellowship has made the Hebrew egalitarian in its new siddur, "Or Chadash."

"Brucha At" is used interchangeably with the traditional "Baruch Ata" of most blessings, and the feminine forms of verbs and nouns are provided alongside the masculine.

And then there is a school of Jewish feminist thought that says that since the traditional prayers were written by men, they exclude the female experience of prayer by definition.

One remedy is to retrieve the prayers and meditations that women wrote in centuries past, suggest rabbis, or to include the writings of contemporary female authors in the liturgy.

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